Superhero Science: How Humans Will Someday Get Superhero Vision

barry fitzgerald superhero science ai robots technology science superheroes hawkeye Barry F. Fitzgerald
Written by Barry Fitzgerald

In the latest installment of superhero science, researcher BARRY F. FITZGERAL explains how technologists will someday endow humans with the eyes of Avengers’ Hawkeye …

A version of this story ran on RobotRepublic, our sister publication Read it here. Ed,

aNewDomain —Hawkeye is one of those lesser known Marvel superheroes,  but make no mistake about it: He’s a critical component of the elite superhero team that is The Avengers.

As anyone who’s watched The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America well knows, the reason he’s so critical to the Avengers has everything to do with his sharp-shooting archery skills.

Quite literally, he has the eyes of a hawk, hence the name, of course.

I’m not telling you this to get you to watch more movies or buy more action figures, either. I’m bringing up Hawkeye because the technology that enables him to shoot so accurately could well be in reach to those of use who live in the real world, albeit a future real world.

This year, along with rest of The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, he’ll battle the Mad Titan Thanos in the superhero-blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War.

hawkeye superhero scienceUnlike Tony Stark and Captain America whose superpowers can be attributed to an advanced exoskeleton suit and an experimental super-solider serum respectively, Hawkeye’s superpowers are more subtle and grounded. His two key physiological characteristics are his speed of reaction and advanced eyesight, with both contributing to his ability as a master archer.

He has inherited, you see, the necessary genes for advanced eyesight from his parents.

Now, it’s quite likely that Hawkeye has a number of attributes in common with birds of prey such as advanced accommodative mechanisms, a larger density of photoreceptor cells and even the ability to detect UV wavelengths.

And given his superhero nickname (his real name is Clint Barton), this isn’t in the least surprising.

Having Hawkeye’s advanced vision may sound like an attractive proposition. One method of realizing this could be via advanced genetic engineering approaches such as CRISPR/Cas9, a technique that can be used to modify DNA. CRISPR/Cas9 could be used to replace certain genes in human DNA with genes from birds of prey in a process known as transgenesis.

This is a challenging biological problem might be feasible in the future, but it will have to be subject to rigorous ethical examination and scientific evaluation to make any sense at all.

Rather than relying on genetic engineering, there are a number of technological routes that could be used to replicate parts of Hawkeye’s advanced eyesight. Bionic lens might sound like a thing of fiction but companies like Ocumetics and Alphabet (or Google) do not see it that way. Both companies are in the process of developing wearable bionic lens that could have a hugely positive impact on health care.

Such a lens could be used as a replacement for a lens with cataracts, potentially providing 20/20 vision for a patient and in turn improving their quality of life.

For the Ocumetics lens, the damaged biological lens is replaced via cataract surgery and the new bionic lens is connected to the ciliary muscles of the eye, which deform the shape of the lens when focusing on objects. In theory, a person with this bionic lens could also have a larger range of vision capabilities such as better than 20/20 vision, just like Hawkeye.

Implantation of a bionic lens would place new demands on the biological ciliary muscles of the eye, particularly if we want the user to be able to focus on more distant objects. In a recent investigation the ciliary muscles of a number of patients with early emmetropic presbyopia, a condition where it is more difficult for the eye to focus on close objects, were subjected to electrostimulation to reinvigorate their near-vision. In the future, this could be a seriously useful treatment for patients.

However, electro-stimulation of the ciliary muscles could be of paramount importance when we attempt to imitate Hawkeye’s advanced vision.

Electrostimulation, in fact, really could provide greater flexibility and range of motion for lens, hence allowing for greater lens deformations.

A bionic lens could allow a person to focus on distant objects, true. But the lens cannot account for the ability of some birds of prey to simultaneously track two objects.

Birds of prey, after all,  have two foveae in their retinas that allows for the tracking of two objects. Unfortunately, the human eye has a single fovea in the retina. Although we cannot track two objects, there may be a technological solution.

Such diseases as retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration can have adverse effects on photoreceptor cells in the retina or fovea, leading to blindness. In recent years, electronic retinal implants have developed and implanted in patients in an attempt to restore photoreceptor functionality.

For example, the Argus II electronic epiretinal device developed by Second Sight Medical Products has allowed a number of blind subjects to see letters and words. The technology is still a long way from replicating full retinal function.

Nonetheless, when the technology does reach this level, it could be used to provide a person with a second fovea to allow a person to track two objects at the same time, just like birds of prey and Hawkeye.

Together bionic lenses, electrostimulation of the ciliary muscles and electronic foveae could help pave a feasible path to Hawkeye’s advanced eyesight. Before rushing off to the laboratories to perfect these technologies, of course we must assess the responsibility of these innovations and ensure that proper ethical practice is followed.

We live in a society yearning for more and more wearable technology. Could the next wave of wearable technologies be add-ons for the human eye? And could these add-ons give the wearer Hawkeye’s incredible raptor vision?

Only time will tell. For now we can only look on at Hawkeye and aspire to have his advanced vision. With the worldwide battle against Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War on the horizon, in Hawkeye we trust.

To find out more about the superhero Hawkeye and his super-vision, check out my book Secrets of Superhero Science, which is available from BW Science.

You can also read more about Hawkeye, how his eyesight works and how Hawkeye can be used in the classroom to teach about the physiology of the eye in the new paper “Using Hawkeye from the Avengers to communicate on the eye” in the Jan. 2018 issue of the journal, Advances in Physiology Education.

Read the journal article in full and in place below.

For aNewDomain and our sister site, RobotRepublic, I’m Barry Fitzgerald in The Hague, Netherlands.

Here’s Dr. Fitzgerald’s research paper around Hawkeye below. Enjoy.

Using Hawkeye from the Avengers to Communicate on the Eye by Gina Smith on Scribd